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Teaching the Nation: Religious and Ethnic Diversity at State Schools in Britain and the Netherlands

by Thijl Sunier - 2009

Background/Context: The article presents the outcomes of international comparative anthropological (qualitative) research on multiculturalism, citizenship, and nation building in schools in Paris, Berlin, London, and Rotterdam. The findings presented here are based on fieldwork carried out over a period of 1 year at secondary schools in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and in London. The project has demonstrated a close relationship between national specific modes and trajectories of integration and the ways in which the schools deal with diversity.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article addresses the growing diversity in religious and ethnic backgrounds among students at primary and secondary schools in Western Europe. The debate about the place of religion in school has gained momentum after the arrival of large numbers of migrants, especially those with a “new” religious background, such as Islam. Their presence challenges existing arrangements and privileges and puts matters that were previously taken for granted back on the agenda. Religion and ethnicity at school touch on a fundamental issue, namely the place of state schooling in the making of modern nation-states. Several issues need to be taken into account: To what extent is religion a legitimate moral resource? Why should one learn about religion, and who should teach it to whom? Is it more important to get religious nurturing or to study the plurality of different belief systems? Should the school accommodate religious and cultural diversity, or should it rather be a neutral arena that deliberately disregards this diversity? These questions do not arise together in one package but present themselves in fragmented, occasional, and contingent ways.

Setting: The data were collected during intensive ethnographic fieldwork in four secondary schools in Neuköln (Berlin), Saint Denis (Paris), Crooswijk (Rotterdam), and Haringey (London).

Research Design: Qualitative fieldwork, case study in secondary schools.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The outcomes of the study demonstrate that although schools are, to a large extent, unique settings that cannot be lumped together, they are crucial sites where principles of national civil incorporation are transmitted to pupils. Although the two schools described in this article resemble each other to a large degree in terms of ethnic composition of the neighborhood, problems faced, and policies adopted by the school board, they each have their specific way of dealing with ethnic and religious diversity. These ways reflect national specific political culture in each of the two countries.

The arrival of large numbers of immigrants to European countries has, among other effects, put the management of ethnic and religious diversity at schools high on the political and educational agendas. Most countries in Europe have adopted some sort of educational policy ranging from a kind of strict neutrality, as in the case of France, to a form of institutionalized multiculturalism, as in the case of the United Kingdom. Many of these arrangements harken back to earlier negotiations and earlier phases of nation building.

This article is based on fieldwork I carried out at secondary schools in the Dutch city of Rotterdam and in London between 1997 and 1999. It was part of a larger project, “State, School and Ethnicity.”1 I show that the particular policies that these schools adopted to deal with (perceived) ethnic and religious diversity reflect relevant aspects of the dominant political culture and the particular role of state education in the making of citizens. The importance of state education for citizenship has long been recognized, but since the arrival of migrant children at schools in Western Europe, education has become one of the most crucial instruments of national integration policies. The nationalist backlash following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States has further invested educational programs with an almost impossible task. Further, I demonstrate this crucial role of education in nation-state building by looking at specific aspects of the curriculum and modes of teaching. Nation-states differ considerably with respect to their modes of civic incorporation, specific national narratives, concepts of citizenship, and models of integration (see, e.g., Brubaker, 1992; Favell, 1998; Ireland, 1994; Koopmans & Statham, 1999; Rath, 1991; Rath, Penninx, Groenendijk, & Meijer, 1996; Schiffauer, 1993; Schiffauer et al., 2004; Vermeulen, 1997; Walzer, 1997; Zolberg & Long, 1997).

A comparison of the cases of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom reveals that both countries, despite their seemingly similar integration trajectories, adopt rather different ways of dealing with diversity. There is a common-sense assumption that these two countries resemble each other in many ways with respect to issues of cultural difference and multiculturalism. Religious pillarization, the political arrangement of religious plurality originating in the 19th-century school struggle in the Netherlands, has often been branded as the Dutch version of multiculturalism. But differences in political culture between the two countries are much greater than is often assumed.2



Despite undeniable globalizing tendencies, or rather as a consequence of globalization, the nation-state is far from dead. It still plays a crucial role as a powerful force, as a political and cultural entity, and as a meaningful source of legitimacy.3 Globalization thus entails at the same time processes of social closure and exclusion (Geschiere & Meyer, 1998). It has rightly been argued that the nation-state presents itself as a cultural agent, for example, in the debate about the unification of Europe. This is, of course, not to perceive ”political culture” as ”timeless national character” (Steinmetz, 1999, p. 21), but rather as a continually evolving distinctive field. As Rose and Miller (1992) argued, “It is in this discursive field that ‘the State’ itself emerges as a historically variable linguistic device for conceptualizing and articulating ways of ruling” (p. 177).


The most effective means to turn a cold and coercive state into a warm and willed nation-state lies in the creation of a national imaginary that imbues its organizational controls with a sense of community (Baumann, 2004). Anderson (1991) and Billig (1995) in particular have provided ample evidence of how this process of community building takes place. The wide variety of symbolic resources that contribute to this national imaginary can be considered crucial elements in the making of citizens. Civil culture, a term coined by the research team, refers to the evolving dimensions of the relation between individuals and the state and to civil enculturation, the trajectory that is deemed to shape individuals into citizens.4 Once individuals in any given nation-state go through a process of discursive assimilation or civil enculturation, they may be expected to acquire specific competencies that enable them to meet the civic requirements and conventions of that particular nation-state. But these competencies are at the same time the necessary requisites for changing civil cultures Thus, civil competencies as prerequisites are both conditional and enabling.

State-supervised schooling has long been recognized as the quintessential mechanism by which nation-states turn children into citizens and individuals into political persons. As Baumann (2004) put it, “Without state schools, there would be no nations as we know them in North-Western Europe, no national conscience collective, and no effective means of inculcating and rehearsing the conventions of the dominant political culture” (p. 2). Civil cultures, then, are primarily, though not exclusively, received and absorbed through explicit and implicit curricula at school.

An important question arises about how the school should reflect society. Is the school a part of civil society, or is it an instrument of the state? From a comparative perspective, it is crucial to elaborate these arrangements and modes of educational policy because, to a large extent, they set the stage for the status of religion and ethnicity at school. In the United Kingdom, ideally the school should reflect the diversity that characterizes society (Skinner, 1993). As a consequence, religious instruction is obligatory in all schools, and there should be an emphasis on antiracist education. In most cases, however, religious education is actually Christian in content. This was explicitly formulated in the Education Reform Act of 1988 and is related to the dominant position of the Church of England as a state church. However, the content of religious education is a matter for the local educational authorities, and these authorities reflect the local political landscape. As such, there are considerable differences from school to school regarding the makeup of religious and antiracist education. Schools located in an urban environment with large numbers of migrants do actually adopt policies different from those in the countryside. Confessional schools are entitled to apply for so-called voluntary aided status. This status concerns the relative autonomy of the school board and the possibilities for state funding. In practice, it is difficult for  schools, especially those founded by “new” religions, to apply for such a status.

In the Netherlands, the educational system is still very much dominated by Article Number 23 of the Constitution, the basis of the so-called pillarization in education.5 This article stipulates that the organization of education is free in the Netherlands. In addition to this constitutional right, supplementary legislation regulates the financial responsibility of the state in educational matters. This implies that (recognized) confessional schools receive the same funding as state schools.

On the basis of this legislation, Muslims have founded Islamic schools from the mid-1980s. Currently, there are some 40 Islamic primary schools, two Islamic secondary schools, and two Islamic universities in the Netherlands. The curriculum in state and confessional schools is almost exactly the same. The differences lie in the general atmosphere of the schools. Because of the tendency toward a decline in religious belief and practice in society and post-World War centralization of education policy, the confessional pillars have lost their function, and the differences between confessional and state schools have diminished. The founding of Islamic schools has invigorated the debate once again (Sunier, 2004).

In addition to the religious identity of the school, there is a steady debate in the Netherlands about so-called black schools, schools with more than the average number of students of foreign background. This debate coincides with that of the confessional schools but not entirely. Because there is freedom of school choice, “White” parents may contribute, by their school choice, to “White flight.” The choice of schools is a very sensitive and politicized subject in the Netherlands.



Religion is one of the most crucial areas of contestation in the reproduction of civil culture. It is certainly not a coincidence that the new legislation in France about “ostentatious signs” in public places, following the report of the Stasi Commission in December 2003, concerns schools first and foremost. But even in nation-states with a less “etatist” and secularist political agenda, religion and school are two issues that are inextricably linked. The influx of migrants with “new” religious backgrounds has added another dimension to the role of schools as a principal contentious field. Because the “new religious presence” is, however, not equally distributed within host countries, specific circumstances in individual schools suggest that each school should be treated as a unique case. Certainly, in cases in which schools have a relatively great operational autonomy, such as in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, this geographical variety should be taken into account. Nonetheless, distinct national patterns are clear.


History books draw the quintessential lessons of the past for the present—and by doing so, they define the future. They draw the boundaries of the nation (clarifying who belongs to it and who does not), they define the role that it should play with regard to other nations, and they define the principles that should govern the relations within. It is through history books that the notion of “what a nation stands for” is passed from one generation to the next. The concepts presented in history books are, of course, not to be confounded with reality; they reflect how the nation wants to be (or how it wants to be seen), not what it actually is. As in every socialization process, children are not confronted with social life as it is, but as it should be—sometimes in an almost self-stereotyping way. But this does not mean that it is meaningless. On the contrary, the principles of legitimacy are defined by transmitting how civil society should be dealt with, who should participate, and how solutions should be found (Schiffauer & Sunier, 2004).


Our research study compared four schools in four countries: France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany. For each of the four schools included in the project, one researcher followed school life for over a year, attending classes, observing students and teachers, participating in activities, and interviewing staff and students. On the basis of the national research reports, which were compiled with the close cooperation of the four research teams, cross-national analyses were carried out. These analyses were then matched with the initial data and with additional material about education policies and practices in the four countries. We were therefore able to trace school-specific trends from more general trends in educational policy.

In the following section, I address religion and ethnicity in the London and Rotterdam schools along three dimensions: (1) The place of the school vis-à-vis the surrounding neighborhood: How does it deal with the requirements of parents and organizations that represent sections of the population? (2) The implicit curriculum: How are religious issues addressed during regular lessons, especially against the background of the presence of students from “new” religious backgrounds? (3) The formal curriculum: What is actually taught at school with respect to religious and ethnic diversity, and how is subject matter handled during which lessons?

The school chosen in London was a comprehensive school called Wood Green in the Borough of Haringey in the northern part of the city, situated in an area of suburban problems and intense ethnic and class frictions. About 80% of the students are from ethnic minority backgrounds. In the area, there is a relatively high percentage of Turkish students from mainland Turkey and Cyprus. There are also students from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, and Africa.

The Dutch school was also a comprehensive school situated in an ethnically mixed area in the city of Rotterdam. Although the school had at that time a high percentage of students of nonnative backgrounds, it was not (yet) branded as black, in Dutch parlance.

A note on representation is needed here. Because we confined ourselves to only one school in each of the four countries, the critique could well be that every school, even in the centralized French school system, is unique. How can a single school give us insight into the relevant traits of civil culture that are transferred? Or, to put it differently, there are so many school-specific intervening factors that it is hardly possible to distinguish them from civil culture.

There is indeed no such thing as an average Dutch, German, French, or British school. But the basic assumption in this type of research is that there is a civil culture that is communicated at school. Schools do not work in a void. They are part and parcel of civil society, and they are instruments of the state. There are patterns, and indeed consistencies, of designing, putting across, and receiving—or else rejecting—civil-cultural messages that could not be shifted from Paris to London, or Rotterdam to Berlin, without the reader frowning, “implausible.” These patterns can only be analyzed through a research methodology that takes into account all possible factors that contribute to and influence the inculcation process. School-specific circumstances, such as the composition and characteristics of the staff, the location of the school, its image and reputation vis-à-vis other schools, and the number and ethnic composition of migrant students are, of course, relevant, and they have been taken into account in the analysis (see Baumann, 2004).


The school and its surroundings

The building of Huxley Comprehensive is separated from the surrounding neighborhood by an iron gate, but it is open during the day. One enters the school and is in the middle of multiethnic London. In all respects, the inside of the school reflects the students’ cultural and religious backgrounds—the paintings and drawings on the wall, a school canteen that takes into account students’ religious prescriptions for food, and, not least, the appearance of the students themselves. Although they are all dressed in a school uniform, headscarves and other particular signs reveal the students’ backgrounds. Their culture is the students’ identity, and it is shown and expressed, rather than hidden, during school hours. If teachers use the wall space, they put up notices about ethnic or religious community meetings, to which the school opens its doors at night, or about the wrongs of racial discrimination. Official signposts and announcements, too, reflect the consciously multicultural vision of the school as a British mosaic of many identities coexisting under one roof (Baumann & Sunier, 2004).

The school as an arena for difference

At the same time, the school is very eager to provide the students with a sense of encompassing school identity. This goal is reinforced by an institution called assembly, which is the daily practice of assembling all students and staff in the same place. The very origin of it is the daily sermon, common in many state schools until recently, and the assembly can be depicted as a secularized sermon. Every morning, a section of the students meet at the central auditorium of the school. Although these obligatory meetings have a general character and are often used for practical information, punitive speeches by the head of the section, or preparatory information for the next excursion, exam, or another important occasion, the atmosphere of the assemblies can be utterly religious, or at least spiritual. There is ample room for reflection on serious matters, and students are encouraged to use the meeting as fuel for daily school interaction. With the more reflective meetings, the school brings in, so to speak, civil society framed in a lesson for (school) life.

During a researcher’s visit on March 17, the major event for the assembly was St. Patrick’s Day, the most important celebration in Ireland. To give an idea of the “spiritual tone” of the meeting, the following conversation by a teacher of Irish descent is instructive:

Teacher: “What special day is today, does anyone of you know that?”

A student from the audience: “St. Patrick!“

Teacher: “Yes, it’s St. Patrick’s Day! Is anyone here from Ireland? (a few students raise their hands, so does one of the teachers present) – St. Patrick’s Day is a special Day in Ireland, because St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland and because Irish people celebrate the fact that we have a culture of our own that we are proud of; therefore it is a special day for Irish people all over the world, not only in Ireland, but especially for Irish people in the USA: being in a foreign country is not always easy, and St. Patrick’s is the day where we think about the people back home, where we have come from. And also, in remembrance of Ireland, we color the rivers green. You will hear a piece of music now about an Irishman in America who is fantasizing about Ireland.“ (The teacher sings an a capella verse, and a student plays the tune on the flute afterwards.)

The other Irish teacher unexpectedly comes to the front and announces an extra performance. He will sing a song about an Irishman in London: “Many many people had to leave Ireland due to a famine, that’s why so many Irish people are in America, and some also came to London. So now I will sing a verse of a poem about an Irishman who is in London.” When having finished, his colleague thanks him and announces another performance: “I don’t know if you can imagine, Joe (a 17-year-old black student) is an Irishman who is about to leave for America. And he imagines how it is going to be there. But I don’t ask him to do that in Irish accent but in his own, because this could be anywhere in the world, he can be from any country in the world. – You see, many people come here from other countries with dreams in their heads about how it is going to be to live in this country.” (quoted in Mannitz, 2004, p. 103)

The idea behind this day’s assembly was that everybody has something very special and particular to contribute to the school community. For Irish people, this is St. Patrick’s Day. They celebrate “their own culture of which they are proud.” In a subsequent history lesson, the teacher referred to the meaning of St. Patrick’s Day as an event that is valued equally with Ramadan for Muslims or Christmas for Christians. All these events “celebrate our community.” Students should be aware that these events celebrate the communities that make up Britain. Students have to learn the emotional ties to the place where their ethnic or religious group stands in society. The message conveyed in these kinds of lessons is that everybody should cherish his or her own cultural and religious tradition. At the same time, people should not forget to be active members of British society. Thus, migration and religious diversity are components of British society and should be a topic that concerns everybody (cf. Baumann, 1999).

Religious education for all

At Huxley Comprehensive, as in many other English schools, religious education is more or less a standard ingredient of the curriculum. The educational program suggests that discussion of moral issues is essential for the development of social ethics and cultural identity. By learning about ethics, students are supposed to acquire genuine multicultural competence. Despite local differences with respect to the subject’s contents, religious education is an obligatory part of the curriculum for all students in the United Kingdom. The actual teaching of the subject can, of course, vary greatly, and the location of a school plays a decisive role in this. Schools far away from urban centers and with few immigrants probably phrase multireligiosity in their curriculum in a much more abstract manner. In contrast, the idea that each community has the right to be represented and that all children should be educated for living together in a multicultural, multifaith society is a daily reality in the Wood Green school.

In general, however, religious education is predominantly Christian. The 1988 Education Reform Act, Section 8(3), states that all syllabuses “must reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are mainly Christian, while taking into account the teachings and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain” (Mannitz, 2004, p. 108). This emphasis on the dominance of Christian faith must be placed in the context of the traditionally tight relations between the state and the Anglican church in Britain.7 Thus, although British society has become multifaith because of immigration, Christian hegemonic claims are still made by prescribing the “mainly Christian nature” for religious education and the daily act of worship. As we saw in the St. Patrick’s Day assembly at Huxley Comprehensive, the Christian undertone may well be subsumed under the heading of “celebrating community.” In instances in which the majority of students are actually Christian, such an assembly may take the shape of an explicitly Christian act of worship.

The senior teacher of religious education at Huxley School stressed that the school teaches students’ different faiths and expects the students to respect other people’s religious values. The subject, Religious Education, covers Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. These six religions are the standard program for the preparation of the nationwide GCSE exam, but the actual lessons can differ. The relationship between actual curriculum and multireligious reality may become clear from the following report of a religious education lesson in the 11th year.

The book used is Moral Issues in Six Religions (1991/1996) by W. Owen Cole, Heineman Educational (Jordan Hill Oxford OX28EJ). An overview of important issues in Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Sikhism, the text is handed out by the teacher. It is the end of the course, and today, the role of the family in Christianity is at stake. First, the students have 15 minutes (out of 60) to copy information. Then there are three questions: (1) How important is family? (2) What is the view of the Pope on women in the family? (3) What principles are important for the care of the elderly, according to the Church of England? Again, 15 minutes are allotted for answering these questions on paper. Then the teacher begins discussing the material by asking the students questions. The mode in which the issues are discussed is comparative. The extent to which this comparison is phrased as an equal validation of all religious denominations or as a juxtaposition of “other religions” against Christianity probably depends on the location of the school. At Huxley Comprehensive, the mode tended toward an equal validation, but the teacher told us that teachers decide what books are used, as long as they fit with the general guidelines. These guidelines determine that all six religions should be treated equally but with a little more emphasis on Christianity (“after all, this is a Christian nation”).

Local variations in the specific way that religion is taught have to do with the composition of the so-called local advisory boards that monitor the content of religious education. The formation of these Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education is supposed to lead to locally agreed-on syllabi that accommodate other religions in addition to Christianity. Each board is required to find a consensus that reflects the existing plurality of religions within the local committees because the ethnic communities represented in the councils influence the content of the lessons.

Religious education is organized as a moral guideline in a multicultural society. The central message is, “I have the right to have my religion respected and have it taught at school in a face-to-face setting with the others.” Religions serve as crucial markers in a multiculturalist discourse. As such, religious education is an important element of the institutionalized antidiscrimination policies and thus has wider implications. In London, the local education authority has installed an extensive system of committees to monitor the policy of Equal Opportunities in Education. Its guidance booklets emphasize Equal Opportunities legislation as a profound benefit for the whole community (Mannitz, 2004).

Despite this legal equality as stipulated in the 1988 Reform Act and its introduction in the Standing Advisory Councils, many Muslim parents are worried by the fact that religious education is still a predominantly Christian affair. One of the responses to this concern all over Britain was an increasing attempt to establish private and independent Islamic schools. Several Muslim organizations applied for the state funds, which are available for denominational schools in the United Kingdom. The Union of Muslim Organizations (UMO), the U.K. Islamic Mission, and the Muslim Educational Trust were all ready to support initiatives (Nielsen, 1989). A growing number of private and state-funded Islamic schools have opened since then in an attempt to counterbalance the Christian prominence in these matters. Some Muslim parents even considered the founding of “their own schools” as an act of “cultural survival” (Haw, 1994, p. 72). As a result of the Education Act of 1996, parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious education in cases in which it is “too Christian.”

In practice, multicultural legislation produces complex situations. At Huxley School, some students wanted to have lessons about their Alevi belief. They asked for its integration into the religious education curriculum, but their teacher simply did not know enough about Alevitism to meet that request. And because the school library had no book about it, the idea was quickly dropped.

Teaching the nation in schoolbooks

The British curriculum seems to be rather unambiguous about at least one issue: Britain has cultural diversity, and schools should not impose one standard or uniform cultural package on young people. The diversity that is at the root of British identity should promote tolerance and respect for other cultures among students. This is the message in the so-called national curriculum. Plurality within the country is emphasized as something natural and good; dealing with difference is something that the country has been doing all along. It is within such a framework that immigration is also discussed. The message is reassuring; postwar immigration may have brought in people from countries not previously represented in the United Kingdom, but immigration itself is nothing new. The successive waves of immigration are depicted as a creating a continual flow of ethnic and cultural diversity. Established U.K. residents are expected to learn to deal with that diversity. The curriculum provides examples of exclusion and discrimination, and the complexities and difficulties of the immigration situation are analyzed. However, the message is that these problems can be overcome by constantly updating the concept of “Britishness.”

Relevant schoolbooks present the vision of a multicultural civil society. Solutions to problems can be found by respecting the culture of others. The acting units in this context are cultural communities (between which the boundaries seem to be clear): the Scots, the Welsh, the Pakistanis. An equation of community—culture—identity is the basis of this concept. It has some superficial similarities to the romantic concepts of culture but in fact seems to be more rooted in the imperial tradition, classifying a number of peoples more or less roughly along pragmatic lines.

In most history books, a problem-oriented approach is chosen, with the titles of the subchapters formulated in open questions. Take, for example, the chapter on Ireland: “How did Protestants get more power than Catholics?” “Why were Catholics and Protestants so divided?” “Why did ‘the Troubles’ begin in 1969?” and “Why was there so much violence in Northern Ireland between 1969 and1972?” The students are given the necessary information to answer these questions. This approach to history stresses the synchronic rather than the diachronic character of history. There is an interest in showing the extent to which a particular problem is embedded in a specific context rather than reconstructing a systematic sequence of events (as we came across in French history books). Knowledge very clearly is not an aim in itself; it serves understanding the world and dealing with it as it is. This is the same message as that conveyed in the overall curriculum. So, it is a pragmatic, rather than a systematic, approach that is favored. The metanarrative that emerges, then, is the “reasonableness” that Britain stands for. The British virtue is to be coolheaded and to be able to find pragmatic solutions—solutions that respect the culture/identity/community of each of the groups that constitute Britain. The common good is best served by fair and reasonable treatment in intergroup situations. Boundaries should be respected, because otherwise they would harden.


The school and its surroundings

The Tinbergen school, consisting of three buildings separated by a 10-minute walk, manages to straddle the social borders between a working-class area of Rotterdam, “rough” by most comparative standards, and a confirmed middle-class area that still recognizes the school as its own. This is no mean feat in a country where parents can put their children in any school they wish. This distinctive policy has two aspects. On the one hand, it allows for a strong emphasis on school identity and school quality. On the other hand, it makes the school a battleground for identities and a prime site to observe state–religion relations taking shape (Baumann & Sunier, 2004).

Although the school boasts of its mixed student population (“We have 25 different nationalities and six religions in this building”) and location in a mixed area, the Tinbergen is first and foremost a “public” school in the Dutch legal sense of the word. There is no obligatory religious education comparable to that in the United Kingdom. The school administration is very determined to keep out any external religious influences. Thus, when an evangelical organization put an “info bus” right next to the school, the administration did its utmost to minimize its contact with students. Religious organizations have no access to the premises.

Religion inside school  

With respect to clothing and other visible personal statements, the school applied a low-key approach. Thus, headscarves were allowed as long as they did not interfere with the normal school procedures. To put it another way, the school was very eager not to politicize anything related to the background of its students: no special arrangements for  “culturally different” students, no registration of ethnic background, no specific “multicultural” programs, and so forth. But this practice also meant that the school applied no limitations and regulations on dress and outlook beyond the rules of general decency. Discussion of religion or ethnicity occurred only when prompted during lessons in which culture or lifestyles were at issue and in some other cases in which something very specific happened. But even then, differences were wrapped up in inclusiveness. The implicit behavioral code was “be yourself, but do it low key and within the moral framework of the school.” This implies that the boundary between students’ personal routines and lifestyles inside and outside the school was virtually nonexistent. There was no urgent reason to use dress codes at school as a means to make a political statement. At the same time, however, the school was a stage where students from different backgrounds met and interacted with each other. Consequently, there was implicit or explicit coercion to dress and behave as expected.

However, according to some (Muslim) students, there was a reverse side to the generally appreciated low-key approach. Any request for special collective treatment on the basis of ethnic or religious background was declined on the grounds that justice to all students would be impossible in such a situation. One example illustrates this policy. The administration rejected a request from a couple of Muslim students to organize a small room for prayer in one of the empty rooms at the top of the building. The reason was not the apparent jeopardy of the religious neutrality of the school, the standard explanation at French schools, but that it would jeopardize the equal treatment of students. Thus, the school considers religious and ethnic plurality to be an enrichment and a challenge at the same time.

Religious relativism: religion in the curriculum

The Tinbergen is a state school, which in the Dutch system implies that there are no compulsory religion lessons.9 There is no general obligation to pay attention to religion, but public schools are free to offer religious education if they consider it useful in their pedagogical agenda. As a consequence of heightened attention to the religious backgrounds of migrants, many schools pay ample attention to religious issues.

Previously, it was not unusual for public schools to offer religious education, often called “bible knowledge,” but with the decline in religious belief and practice in Dutch society, Christian religious education has disappeared. Denominational (confessional) schools do offer explicit subjects, and in many such schools, there is also a kind of religious opening of the day, during which students and teachers come together to pray before lessons begin. The pillarized school system has resulted in an actual division of labor with respect to religious education. Although even confessional schools cannot include actual religious nurture in the general curriculum, they can pay more attention to their “own” religious identity. One of the main reasons that Muslims started to found Islamic schools in the 1980s was that they saw no opportunity, either in confessional or in public schools, to pay more attention to Islam. Demands by Muslim parents were rejected by referring to the possibility of setting up confessional schools (Sunier, 2004).

Thus, a public school such as Tinbergen considers it a prime task to teach students about religion without treating it as a moral source like in the British case. Religious topics are used, however, to show students how varied human societies can be. For example, explicit aspects of Christianity are typical subjects of history and sociology lessons. Thus, religion is treated as part of human history rather than as a source of conscience. The emphasis is on the Christian world. A history book chapter for the highest grades called "Roots of Western culture” is a good example of the implicit prominence of Christianity over other religions. The chapter called “Greeks, Romans and Christians” treats the origins of Christianity and its eventual victory over the Romans. The subject unit ends around 500 A.D. Why it is called “Roots of Western culture” is apparently considered so obvious that the relation between the contents of the chapter and present-day “Western” society needs no explanation at all (Mannitz, 2004).

Religion in most of the textbooks at Tinbergen is treated as an issue of civilizations rather than of a single civilization. Religion is related to specific moments and events in history. Thus, Christianity constitutes a crucial element in the making of European nation-states, whereas Islam is constructed as the “red thread” through the political history of the Middle East, starting with the Arab civilization and ending up with Khomeini, the first Gulf War, and the relationship between Israel and the Arab world. Jews, but not Judaism, are treated in the context of Nazism, and Hinduism is covered in a chapter on India as the basis of an “age old culture.” “Islamic civilization,” like Hinduism, is just another non-Western phenomenon. As far as Europe is concerned, Islam is linked to the presence of migrants from “far away.” The Islam chapter links some of these differences to the diversity of subjectivities within Dutch society; the migration of Muslims to Europe shows that one can find Islam around the corner in the mosque, at the Islamic butcher, in the neighboring street. Thus, the cultural and religious contrasts are not merely somewhere “out there” in the distance but might also be behind the doors of one’s neighbors.

A book on the multicultural society covers Islam in a chapter called “Fundamentalism,” about “problems of cultural differences.” Fundamentalism is described as a political ideology that threatens open discussion and democracy. As such, Islamic fundamentalism is grouped together with all other kinds of fundamentalism as the enemy of the open society. The chapter ends with a critique of prejudices against Islam, refuting the idea that Muslims are taking over the Netherlands. Muslims in the Netherlands are said to “emphasize the harmonious cohabitation with other people.” According to the textbook, it is not the Quran that demands the subjugated position of women, but rather the culture, and apart from that, “read in the Bible what it says about women!” Muslims may have difficulty adapting themselves to the new society they live in, but “look at some Christian groups and convince yourselves of the fact that most Muslims are using the Quran in much the same way as most Christians use the Bible: very normal and moderate.” The message that comes up in the book is that we should not dramatize the presence of Muslims but should make them part of “our own” moral community. Thus, we should include rather than exclude Muslims.10

There appears to be a pedagogical agenda behind the material in the textbook, saying that individuals should be very careful with judgments that concern “the other” in their own society. Students are told to be cautious with their opinions about different cultures and religions and to compare what they read or hear with what they know from their surroundings. Throughout the curriculum, students learn to discuss and communicate with others, and communication with people of “foreign background” is an integral part of that training. Ethnic and religious difference is a societal condition with which individuals have to live. They should realize that people, having different cultural backgrounds and religious heritages, may have different ideas about ways of living. And as long as these cultural differences do not infringe on the lives of others, diversity is enriching and positive: Be nice to others and learn to live with differences. Many students at Tinbergen seemed to pick up this message rather well, as the following case shows: At the end of each school year, a dinner is organized for those students entering their final exams. During the year of our research, one of the Muslim students submitted a request to the school board asking for halal meat for the meat fondue to be prepared. He phrased this request (on behalf of many of the Muslim students) not in terms of religious obligations but as a means for Muslims to be able to participate in the dinner. The inclusive strategy he adopted was fully in line with what was expected from all students.

Teaching the nation in textbooks  

On January 17, 2005, the Dutch Educational Council, the prestigious advisory board of the Ministry of Education, issued a report about the state of education in the Netherlands. One of its most salient sections concerns the recommendation to develop a “national cultural canon” and a greater emphasis on the “socializing task of the school” (Onderwijsraad, 2005, p. 119). The report maintains that in recent decades, the cognitive task of schools has been overemphasized at the expense of their role as the quintessential mechanism by which nation-states turn children into citizens. It is a statement made at a time of hot debate in the country about values and norms, violence at school, and, not least, the alleged growing radicalization of young immigrants. Although the board report admits that the content of such a canon may be subject to dispute, the idea that schools should teach children some of the “basic tenets” of the history of the Netherlands is strongly recommended to strengthen the unity of the country. In an interview, the chairman of the board stated, “The Netherlands are in a state of confusion. The encroaching European Union, individualization, the emerging Islam. Just in these circumstances it is deemed important to bring together that what many consider valuable” [italics added].11

The idea that Dutch history books do not pay enough attention to national history is misleading. The national perspective is very clear. As in the British case, the books used at the Dutch school are problem oriented and selective with respect to the themes included. But the themes chosen are not event oriented. Rather, they are system oriented and seem to serve as examples not so much of what society is made up of, but of how it functions. The Dutch nation-state shares with all Western nation-states the basic principles of the constitutional state. Like France, Great Britain, and the United States (and unlike Germany and Japan [sic]), its system is based on the liberal-democratic model. But these other states have faced turmoil and revolution, which begs the question why the “lowlands”—the Netherlands and Belgium—have not had such experiences.12 The answer to this question is given by a historical account of the development of the Dutch nation-state. It is no coincidence that ample attention is paid to the city-states of the Renaissance in Italy, and implicitly, a line of continuity is drawn from the democracy of the ancient Greeks to city-states like Sienna and to the present-day Netherlands. This attention led to the development of “real” democracy in which everybody strives for autonomy without slipping into anarchy; it is possible because of a basic commitment to the structural whole, the nation. Contemporary Dutch history shows that this particular political ideal is reached step by step (Schiffauer & Sunier, 2004).

It is not the history of grand universal ideas, the battle between good and evil, or the stories of the great men who led us to victory. It is the history of ordinary people who take part in a political community and, by doing so, contribute to the development of that community even when they have adversarial opinions (the history of people being able to go through a door together, as the saying goes). It is an account of a certain type of morality allowing for democracy, negotiation, and inclusion—the very essence of Dutch civil culture.

This is a variation on the myth of eternal Dutch tolerance. Dutch society is typically thought of as one that consists of individuals with different lifestyles, different opinions, and different backgrounds. To live peacefully, residents must adopt a system that ensures optimal application of these principles. What counts is the fact that there is diversity of all sorts and, more important, that there is a way of dealing with this diversity. Multiculturalism is thus less a social reality than a challenge in which schooling is almost a coping mechanism. The implication of all this is that the Netherlands has managed to organize a peaceful cohabitation of religious minorities not by making an issue of the differences, but rather by playing it low key. Religion is, in a way, conceived of as a matter of opinion, culture as a matter of subculture and lifestyle, ethnicity as a matter of background. Diversity in terms of religion, culture, and ethnicity is thus noted but treated as an individual option. Collective rights, which figure so prominently in the British concept of multicultural society, are not visible in this construction.

Although the approach of the Dutch textbooks resembles, in many ways, that of the British books—namely the idea that the common good is reached by respecting differences—it lays much more emphasis on the commonalities that people share and the moral obligations expressed in democracy, negotiation, and inclusion that people should subscribe to. Whereas the differences are underlined in British textbooks, they are downplayed in Dutch texts. The basis of the argument is that individuals should understand cultural differences as an integral part of society. Dealing with these differences is a matter of pedagogy rather than of rights, as in British schools. This pedagogy should aim to develop a common moral community, a modus vivendi that participants buy into. The difference with the referee democracy envisaged in British textbooks is that this common moral community may easily be interpreted as common culture. This ambiguity, as we will see, is reflected in the competences required of students in the Dutch school.

The curricular construction of national histories in British and Dutch textbooks shows how each civil culture makes use of cultural dichotomies, entailing shared images of each national collectivity that are deeply ingrained in everyday consciousness and bolstered by routine symbols, habits of language, practice, and belief, with the result that nations are horizontally imagined

 as communities (see also Anderson, 1991; Billig, 1995; Shils, 1994).


We should always be careful not to draw universal or general conclusions from specific data. To a large extent, individual schools always reflect their particular location. The Rotterdam and London schools discussed here are no exception. We can, however, draw some conclusions with respect to the way in which religion and the nation are located in the discursive field and how individual schools deal with the dominant discourse on religious and ethnic diversity. Schools with the same social conditions face the same type of issues, yet the way in which these issues are defined, problematized, and categorized, as well as the solutions put forward, reflects the dominant civil culture in many respects. Schools will always find “practical” solutions, yet practicality is always relative to the particular framework in which the school operates. Here, we can distinguish some crucial contrasts.

The most obvious difference with respect to religious education between the Tinbergen school and Huxley Comprehensive is that in the Dutch case, religion itself was less a moral source than a condition that implies a certain behavioral attitude. Religion was externalized as a private pursuit that should in no way infringe on one’s life unwillingly. However, religious diversity was not altogether eradicated from the public arena. Indeed, the implicit credo was that living together involves a moral duty to respect an overarching universal system of equality and nondiscrimination as the basis for intersubjectivity. Participation and societal recognition in Dutch civil culture depend on this agreement rather than on the conscious awareness or the denial of a particular cultural or religious background.

In the case of Huxley Comprehensive, instead of being externalized and privatized, religion was considered an important element that shapes the public sphere. This may lead to a “clash of religions,” but, more positively, religion is a source of personal moral conduct and of multicultural social conduct.

As the textbook analysis has shown, the Brit

ish understanding of multiculturalism puts diversity at the center of self-definition and turns it into a task; students should develop multicultural competence that goes beyond mere methods of conduct, for British culture itself is defined as plural. At the school in London where our research was carried out, difference was very much taken for granted. Much more so than in any of the other countries, cultural differences are an almost “natural” part of everyday school life. Further, they are depicted not as a source of problems but as a source of experience. When enrolling at the school, it is a regular part of the registration for students to identify the ethnic group to which they belong, and it is thus considered self-evident that students come from different ethnic backgrounds. The general message is that everybody has the right to have his or her own background respected and tolerated. At this level, the dominant discourse on the nation perceives the population as consisting of different ethnic groups under the umbrella identity of the British. But at the same time, such an ambiance materializes a multicultural experience.

This principal approach became apparent mainly in two ways. The first is a strong emphasis on antidiscrimination, because “discrimination potentially affects everyone. . . . All forms of discrimination are socially divisive and hinder individual development,” as stated in the handbook about the programmatic principles of the Education Services. The second is the idea that the school reflects the surrounding society. This is somewhat similar to the Dutch approach but fundamentally different from the French school system, in which the school represents the republic rather than society. To overcome racism and discrimination, the positive contributions of different cultures should therefore be emphasized:

Culture: Beliefs, traditions, social norms, practices, literature, and achievements of groups which make up our society. A cultural group shares these characteristics which make up a way of life. . . . A curriculum based on the manifestation of cultural diversity . . .  should form part of an anti-racist curriculum. A multi-cultural perspective should include the positive reference to contributions from many different cultures, and should induce feelings of value and self-respect for the many different cultures within Britain. (Haringey Council Education Services, 1998, p. 24)

Effective integration into society can only be accomplished when cultural diversity is emphasized as something positive. Culture is associated with value and self-respect—in short, with identity. Culture is, however, also associated with community (see also Baumann, 1996). Combined with the principles of equal treatment, this association implies a  categorization dilemma. For practical everyday school situations, classifications tend to run along different criteria than those for more principled issues. With regard to school meals, it apparently made sense to divide the school population into 16 ethnic groups. With regard to “minority formation,” it makes sense to distinguish between Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, and Greeks because the political situation does not allow these particular groups to be classified together. With regard to the general school population, Asians (who, according to the Education Services’ definition, constitute one ethnic group) are divided into Indian Asian, Pakistani Asian, Bangladeshi Asian, and Other Asian. The “ethnic groups” are hence pragmatically constructed on the basis of topical problems (like meals or discrimination) and of size (it obviously makes sense to compose groups of roughly the same size).

At the same time, however, classification has an inherent tendency to invite discrimination, and this should be avoided at all costs. Thus, diversity and difference were always at odds with equality. Political correctness allowed only positive statements to be made about “other cultures.” Talking about the bad habits of a certain ethnic group, a common practice in Dutch schools today, became taboo. Respect vis-à-vis the other’s culture (or community or identity) should ideally govern the relations not only between teachers and students but also between the students themselves. Antiracism was an explicit task of the teaching program, and teachers were ready to apply the theoretical program to their particular school situation in the North London, where the school is located. The saliency of this project of cultural consciousness, combined with mutual respect and self-control, caused some sensitivity among the students about the recognition of ethnic and cultural differences. Ethnic and culture-related topics were frequently presented to students by the school as resources that could provide pride, emotional security, identity, or collective rights. And it is in this way that each “community” should make a contribution to the overarching common identity of Britishness. As such, it also serves as a lever in negotiations. In virtually all situations of group-oriented negotiations, we witnessed a strong emphasis on equal and fair treatment, far more than in the other schools of the project. The flip side was that students developed an overcompensating sensitivity about fair treatment.

The Dutch vision of a participatory democracy implies another way of dealing with differences. Because cultural difference is considered a challenge rather than a source of knowledge and experience, a behavioral approach governs interaction with students with an allochthonous background. As long as no one “makes an issue” of these students and instead takes a low-key approach to their presence, a situation in which consensus might be jeopardized is avoided. Basically, this entails viewing immigrant cultures just like any other subcultures. Culture is equated with lifestyle.

The Dutch concept apparently focuses more on newly arisen problems due to immigration that can no longer be ignored. In one of the books used for sociology classes, under the heading “Dominant Culture and Subculture,” students are informed that “in a society with many cultures, one of them is often the dominant culture. That is then the culture with the greatest influence upon the society” (Luijsterburg, 1996, p. 26). Yet because immigrants' cultures are not part of the dominant Dutch culture, unlike the “subcultures" mentioned previously, they are not treated on exactly the same level but as more distant culturally (Mannitz, 2004). This is what the categorical distinction between allochtonen and autochtonen indicates, and that terminology deserves closer attention. From the same book students, learn that

an autochtoon is an inhabitant of our country who has roots here. His family has lived in the Netherlands for generations. A vreemdeling or buitenlander is a visitor to our country who does not have Dutch nationality. Tourists, political asylum-seekers and buitenlanders who work or study here are vreemdelingen. Most vreemdelingen who stay here long-term come from Turkey (183.900), Morocco (161.100), Germany (53.100), the United Kingdom (43.100) and Belgium (24.100). An allochtoon is somebody who differs on grounds of race or other clearly visible marks [sic] from the original inhabitants of our country. We do not call Belgians or Germans allochtoon. Children of Turkish guest workers, who were born here, speak Dutch (of a regional dialect) perfectly (and maybe no Turkish any longer), and who have Dutch nationality do however belong to the allochtonen. After some generations they will probably not be different any more from autochtonen children. They will have the same habits and perhaps not remember any longer that their grandfather came from Turkey. They will then be considered as autochtonen. . . . Ethnic groups often consist of allochtonen. Minorities are in principle all groups in social life who differ from the majority population in that they are disadvantaged in one or another way. Thus homophiles, [members of] nonconformist [“gereformerd’’ churches], fulltime working women and househusbands can be minorities. . . . If we speak about our multi-cultural society, we mean a society which comprises diverse allochtone ethnic minorities without judging the fact, be it negatively or positively. (Luijsterburg, 1996, p. 7)

The allochtonen are hence the immigrants of the second (or third or fourth) generation whose differences are still clearly visible. They differ both from the real foreigners (vreemdeling or buitenlander), the immigrants of the first generation or any other non-Dutch visitors, and from the autochtonen, the Dutch proper. Manipulation with this kind of classification is quite possible. The allochtonen are a liminal category: neither buitenlander nor autochtonen, neither members of an ethnic community nor quite Dutch. We should bear in mind that both allochtonen and autochtonen are flexible categories. Although most emphasis is put on the allochtonen category, autochtonen is in fact the most powerful side of the dichotomy. It alludes to “real” and “authentic,” qualifications that have an aura of desire, merit, and even emulation (see also Geschiere, 2005).

Soysal (1994) has described the Dutch classification of minorities as follows: “Not all of these categories are ethnic; nevertheless they are defined and organized as ethnicized collective identities vis-à-vis the state. Collectivity in this sense is not cultural but functional" (p. 48). Her attempt to structure the official phrasing reveals again how arbitrary and vague the practice actually is, to aim at individual emancipation on the one hand, and  to set up collectivizing categories to facilitate this on the other. The liminality of the allochtonen evidently poses a problem. There is always a special risk that they might, at any given time, fall back on the communal existence, and this regression has a name: fundamentalism (Mannitz, 2004).

In summary, the Dutch orientation toward suprareligious and supraethnic consensus resembles the British approach insofar as it also takes plurality in society into account. Yet, unlike the British approach, which teaches religious and ethnic diversity as an inherent part of society, in the Netherlands, diversity is something to cope with. At best, the question is left to the individual school. Diversity is an issue of concern in the Dutch case, as long as it does not lead to concerns about collective rights and representation, as is the case in the British understanding of multiculturalism.

As a moral duty that arises from living together, everybody in the Netherlands should apparently know about the impact of religions, which are considered topics in history and sociological lessons. The approach at this level is conciliatory, but particular moral values should rather be taught in their own religious “pillar” within an overarching universal system of consensus. Unlike the English obligatory state provision, religious education is only offered at some Dutch schools, mostly by denominational foundations. Liberty then means the freedom to take part in one of the particularist options, such as possession of religious convictions that are a legitimate source of identity. However, church and state are systematically separate, and all religious affiliations are formally and legally equal in this respect. There is no state-formulated need to provide religious education, but the right to religious education nevertheless exists: Parents can make claims for their children’s religious instruction at state-run schools (Mannitz, 2004).

We may well summarize these differences by depicting the Netherlands as a nation “despite communities,” whereas in this sense, the United Kingdom is a “nation of communities.” Such a generalization will probably not help us much further, but at least it points to the differences in the discursive fields within which schools formulate their answers to daily challenges.


1. The results of the research project have been published in Schiffauer, Baumann, and Kastoryano (2004).

2. We should bear in mind that the data for this research were collected well before 9/11. The terrorist attacks have had considerable impact on these integration trajectories. It is my aim in this article to show how conceptions of nationhood are put into educational practice. This is, of course, not a static phenomenon.

3. On the basis of the results of an ongoing research project on migrants’ mobilization processes and the articulation of political interests, Koopmans and Statham (1999) have convincingly shown that the nation-state did not lose its saliency at all. As they put it, “the nation-state continues to be by far the most important frame of reference for the identities, organizations, and claims of ethnic minorities, and national authorities remain the almost exclusive addressees of the demands of these minorities” (pp. 688–689).

4. The term can be specified by adding nothing more than the adjective civil to the well-established definition: (civil) enculturation is “the process by which an individual acquires the mental representations (beliefs, knowledge, and so forth) and patterns of behavior required to function as a member of a [civil] culture, [largely] taking place as part of the process of . . .  education” (Rhum, 1997, p. 149).

5. Pillars were the politico-ideological blocs that made up Dutch society in the 1920s. In addition to Protestant and Catholic pillars, there were Socialist, Liberal, and Jewish pillars. Although the system has lost much of its function, it still forms the basis of the school system and a variety of welfare institutions.

6. This is a pseudonym.

7. The Queen is head of state and head of the Anglican Church. The Church of England is represented in the House of Lords (for more details, see Rath, Groenendijk, & Penninx, 1991, p. 106).

8. This is a pseudonym.

9. The pillarized school system provides a legal framework for schools with an explicit religious identity. In the 1920s, there were mainly Protestant, Catholic, and a few Jewish schools, next to what are called public schools. Both confessional and public schools, however, are completely funded by the state, provided they meet general educational requirements of the state. Islamic schools fit completely within the confines of this legal framework.

10. We should bear in mind that this book was written in the mid-1990s, long before 9/11 and subsequent events but after the infamous Rushdie affair. In the early 2000s, the atmosphere in the Netherlands with respect to Islam and Muslims changed drastically. This change will certainly be reflected in later editions of these textbooks. Nevertheless, I contend that the basic idea that Islam will eventually be absorbed by Dutch society probably will not be reflected by general public opinion, but it certainly remains a basic element of the Dutch pedagogical regime.

11. NRC interview, January 19, 2005.

12. Here we can sense the impact that the assassination of Theo van Gogh in November 2004 had on the collective consciousness of the Dutch population. The idea that “evil” comes from outside seems to be deeply ingrained in the Dutch psyche.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 6, 2009, p. 1555-1581
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15337, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 4:07:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Thijl Sunier
    University of Amsterdam
    E-mail Author
    THIJL SUNIER is senior lecturer in cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He is a member of the program committee of the research program the Production of Islamic Knowledge in Western Europe, of the International Institute for the study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in Leiden; a member of the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research (ASSR); a member of the board of the Amsterdam Centre for Conflict Studies (ACS); and a visiting fellow of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (IMES). He has conducted research on interethnic relations in postwar neighborhoods and on Turkish youth and Turkish Islamic organizations in the Netherlands. He has also participated in comparative research among Turkish youth in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands and on nation building and multiculturalism in France, the Netherlands, and Turkey. He studied cultural anthropology at the Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam, where he completed his PhD thesis, “Islam in Beweging. Turkse jongeren en islamitische organisaties” ("Islam in Motion: Turkish Young People and Islamic Organizations") in 1996.
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